Tintoretto's Paradise

by G. Wesley Purdy


He was called The Little Dyer — Il Tintoretto —
and, though he had the name because his father
had plied the trade, there is no doubt his fellow
'pintori gave an edge to it. No matter:
their primps and affectations — their fine show —
all came to nothing more than so much clatter.
They were mere interlopers — pigment Moors —
washed up like countless others on those shores.

Yet he remained indeed a tintor's son,
the name he bore encapsulating him
until even silence was a revelation:
the reticence of an ambitious tradesman
who speaks, if he speaks at all, of lots and sums,
or thinks aloud to his wife he'll move the basin
from the window, to prevent the shop-boys' thoughts
from wandering, and save the dimes it costs.

The painter's art had long been sold, by then,
like sides of pork: three bodies eight feet high,
the one a niece, the purling on her dress
precise, the figure at a ducat-five.
In this he was no different from the rest,
but, all a pragmatist, he elbowed by;
he sought to bring in work, to grind the paints,
and make the buyers' favorites into saints.

He did Veronese better than the man
himself, at half the price, in half the time;
or, if the contract called for it, did Titian,
more giorgionesca, vaster, more sublime;
where the others saw a land of high romance,
he painted violence, he advertised;
while they searched for some unique Venetian thing,
he gave Christ's suppers finer catering.

Perhaps already Venice somehow made
it seem enough, perhaps it always had;
roads paved with water, harbors filled with trade,
still unaware that its best days had past,
that all that yesterday had made it great
today betrayed it to itself; perhaps,
somehow, like the last rays of a setting sun,
its greatest beauties were its light undone.

Eventually, Veronese had to die,
and Titian dodder toward a hundred years,
and Venice need to have a Paradise;
the tintor's son, grown old, his own death near,
but hand still slashing and still fierce of eye,
contracted for his masterpiece; appeared
to haggle inches, how each niece must pose,
to wish good health, to sign, to bow and go.


In the Doge's Palace, in the Council Hall,
above the Doge's and Signores' thrones,
there is a Paradise upon the wall;
above the Doge Christ rises up, on droves
of seraphic three year olds, symbolical
of prince and prince: a delegation none
can now believe, and surely few could then,
but fewer still saw what the symbols meant.

It bears the trademark of Il Tintoretto
although there's doubt he ever raised a brush
to it. In Rome, great Michelangelo
had broken health depicting God and such,
and even he was at a loss to know
just what the featuring of heaven was
and left it blank. The Little Dyer knew
he had a house to pay for, work to do.